By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The words that were spilling from Bob Huggins’ mouth late Saturday afternoon were filled with emotion, the kind of emotion he wished he had seen in his West Virginia University basketball team as it tiptoed through a season that demanded more of a militant approach.
The realization had finally hit him, the realization that this was a team that had failed, which meant he had failed, and that was something that had not happened to him in a long, long time. He was, after all, just a couple of years removed from a visit to the Final Four and had a resume with more victories than all but two other active coaches in America.
Yet here he was, staring a losing season in the face, about to miss another journey to the NCAA Tournament, maybe to any tournament, for that matter, and it caught him completely by surprise.
“I am not going to lie to you. I never saw it coming,” he said.
This oversight, perhaps, was more ego driven than reality driven, for the facts were there prior to the season to make you wonder, but Huggins had always been able to mold his teams into what he wanted them to be, and this would be no different.
“I have always taken a lot of pride in the fact that I can get guys to play hard and I can get guys to compete,” he said. “People didn’t like playing against us because we played so hard and we competed so hard. We tried to rebound the ball every time and we just did the right things.”
This team hasn’t done that.
“For some reason, I haven’t been able to reach these guys, which is my fault. I should have been able to find a way to reach them,” he said. “I don’t have any answers. I’d like to think I do. I thought I did.”
In truth, Huggins was being far too critical of himself, for the truth of the matter is that this was a program that had to slip backward.
Over the past few years it had lost maybe the best group of players it had lost since the Golden Era of Jerry West, Hot Rod Hundley and Rod Thorn ... NBA quality players like Da’Sean Butler, Devon Ebanks and Kevin Jones.
It wasn’t that replacement players weren’t being brought to town because they were.
The problem was that they weren’t staying in town.
The truth is that Huggins has lost the heart of three straight recruiting classes, players he thought might have been the heart and soul of this year’s team.
Think of the names going back to Deniz Kilicli’s recruiting class: Dalton Pepper, Danny Jennings, Noah Cottrill, Darius Curry, Pat Forsythe, Tommie McCune — all of them gone.
Might this team have been able to score had Pepper and Cottrill been around? Might it have rebounded better with Jennings and Forsythe?
Certainly it would have been experienced and not counting completely on freshmen and sophomores to carry a load they weren’t prepared for or to lean on transfers, which is always a dangerous path to take, for there are so many variables that come along with them fitting into a new environment, a new offense, a new defense.
Could this have been better than a 13-14 team?
Potentially, but the freshmen proved themselves to be real freshmen, the transfers somehow didn’t live up to expectations, Juwan Staten’s inability to hit shots from the outside hurting, Aaric Murray seemingly being able to play at the top of his game in only spurts and Matt Humphrey coming with damaged shoulders and players who had been at the school for a year actually regressed.
“Explain to me why our sophomores’ numbers were so much better a year ago than they are now?” Huggins asked rhetorically. “Kevin Jones certainly had a heart big enough to fill the building, but was it just him? I don’t know.”
Jabarie Hinds, Gary Browne, Aaron Brown, Keaton Miles — none of them have shown the kind of growth from freshman to sophomore that you would expect.
Look at Hinds and Browne, the two starters.
Hinds has gone from 7.4 points a game last year to 7.7 this year, his shooting percentage has fallen from .419 to .346, his 3-point shooting from .321 to .250 and his assists/turnover ration from 108/64 to 46/49.
Browne’s shooting slipped from .434 to .320, his 3-point shooting from .344 to .189 his assist/turnover ratio from 98/70 to 46/39 while his points per game were 6.5 last season and 6.4 this year.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.